Notable Native: Sue Ekkebus

By Assistant Metro Editor

When Sue Ekkebus’ son was diagnosed in high school with a blood illness that had the potential to develop into leukemia, she wasn’t about to take it lying down.

She joined the Team in Training, a group associated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, to run marathons and raise money for medical treatments. She is a licensed physical therapist assistant, a former elementary school teacher and the mother to her son, now 27, and her 22-year-old daughter.

So it didn’t help when she found out she had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2013 with just two semesters left at the College of DuPage.

The Chronicle spoke with Ekkebus about her son’s battle with a rare blood illness, her battle with thyroid cancer and trying to finish school to become a physical therapist assistant.

The Chronicle:  How did you get involved with Team in Training?

SUE EKKEBUS: I got involved with Team in Training after our son had gone through a blood illness when he was a senior in high school. We spent a lot of time with him getting blood transfusions at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and I came to meet some people there where one of [the mothers] had a daughter who had leukemia. One of the side effects of my son’s illness was sometimes people would end up with a form of leukemia, so I heard about this group called Team in Training and I thought if there’s a chance of [my son getting leukemia] down the road, I want to do everything in my power to help people with leukemia.

What was your experience like in dealing with thyroid cancer?

SE: It wasn’t something that you expect to hear, especially when I thought I had been living as healthy as I could, eating right, exercising [and] getting the right amount of sleep, but you can only do some much about your genetics. I know I have some genetic background on my mother’s father’s side of the family. All of the women had some sort of a thyroid problem, [and] up until this I never had anything going on. I was getting ready to go into my first clinical rotation for my physical therapist assistant program and I went for the physical and my doctor checked my thyroid and said, “Hey, have we ever talked about your thyroid being enlarged?” It was a big shock, but having been a member of Team [In Training] and been around people who have been diagnosed, it wasn’t as shocking as it could have been.  I wasn’t really prepared for it, but when I saw there was a possibility of it, I felt I could handle it.

How did you deal with the radiation treatment?

SE: It was very difficult because it necessitated that I was away from people for a week because I was radioactive. It was difficult to find a place to stay—I had to be away from everyone, had to have everything with me that could be disposable and it was my first two weeks of the school year when all of this started going on. That was really the hardest part. The first two weeks of that semester I went to school via Skype and when you’re in a physical therapy program it’s hard to do something that physical just by watching it and not being present. I felt I was starting the hardest semester behind and I came very close to quitting due to my treatment and side effects of my treatment.  It really affected my memory. I know friends that have had cancer [who were treated] with chemo [tell] me about something called “chemo brain” where you forget everything and that’s how I felt, and I didn’t even have chemo.

What kept you from quitting?

SE: I had my lab partner, my husband and my kids and they had all convinced me that I had come through it this far and that I shouldn’t quit and I should keep plugging away at it. Also, the rest of my classmates—we were a very small class. We were 25 people, but we were together two years straight, so we saw each other more than our families did. They all were behind me all the way. They would practice extra things with me and help me study and because of everybody’s support I was able to graduate in May.

How did you find the motivation to keep fighting cancer and finish school?

SE: A lot of it was my faith, just to stay strong for my family who had been supporting me through this. To stay strong for my friends and my classmates who had been supporting me and I guess I stayed with it just to prove it to myself that I could. I used what I had learned in marathon training; [that] really helped me to make it through all of this too, because running a marathon was a lot like what I was involved in and you just had to keep sight of the finish line.  I would picture walking across the stage in my cap and gown and getting my diploma.